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Study of unemployed job-seekers yields new evidence of how success resides within individuals themselves

April 1, 2012

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

With a number of economic indicators providing hopeful news, a new study that probes the psychological dynamics of job-seeking offers an additional reason for encouragement for the unemployed.
The new research in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal provides a rare look at the ebb and flow of emotions among 177 jobless people over the course of up to 20 weeks, and finds that, to a surprising extent, important factors to the success of the job search are within the grasp of the individuals themselves.
Most critically, perhaps,  53% of the variance that the researchers uncovered in motivation control, the ability to focus on goal pursuit while persisting in overcoming obstacles, was found to reside within individuals rather than between them. The variance, in other words, reflected week-to-week flux in people's job-search experiences more than inherent character traits distinguishing one job-seeker from another.
Thus the importance of "training individuals to employ self-regulation strategies that 'pump up' attentional effort for job search activities," in the words of the study, which was carried out by Connie R. Wanberg of the Carlson School of Management of the University of Minnesota, Jing Zhu of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Ruth Kanfer of Georgia Institute of Technology, and Zhen Zhang of Arizona State University.
In a similar vein, the study also reveals that 41% of the variance in what the researchers called self-defeating cognition, the self-talk engendered by feelings of hopelessness and defeat in the job search, is within rather than between individuals -- that is, reflects daily or weekly fluctuations rather than inherent differences between job-seekers.
Comments Prof. Wanberg, a leading researcher on the job-search process, "Both motivation control and the ability to keep self-defeating thoughts at bay are strongly related to the amount of effort devoted to the job search, which in turn is strongly related to success in landing a job. It is encouraging that both competencies are as widely distributed as this study suggests."
The study exemplifies a relatively new approach to research on job-seeking that involves moving beyond longitudinal investigation, in which typically people are surveyed at one point in time and their answers are analyzed with respect to an outcome at a later point in time. The more recent approach probes, instead, "self-regulation...the extent to which individuals are able to successfully modulate their emotions, attention, effort, and performance during goal-directed activity."
As the authors of the new study explain, "Like many other common issues individuals struggle with, such as overeating, procrastination, or smoking cessation, the unemployment experience is inherently a self-regulatory process. In addition to requiring goal setting and attention to the direction of one's efforts...being unemployed demands self-regulation to sustain job-search effort and manage negative emotions over time...Looking for a job is an unfolding task that is highly autonomous, self-organized, loosely structured, and ill-defined. Individuals must decide on their own how and how often to search, and they rarely receive feedback about the effectiveness of the job-search activities and the strategies they are using."
To investigate this process, the study's authors recruited people from a pool of unemployment insurance recipients identified by a state department of employment and economic development as having been unemployed for three weeks or less and eligible for a full-duration claim. All had lost their jobs through no fault of their own, had to be available for work, and were seeking full-time employment.To preclude potential influences associated with recent unemployment experience or age-related or education-related differences in seeking reemployment, all participants were between 25 and 50 years old, had bachelors' degrees, and had not submitted an unemployment claim in the past four years.
As participants in the study, job-seekers were required to complete a weekly online survey for 20 weeks or until they got a job, whichever came first. Of 177 participants, 128 , or about 72%, found employment within the 20-week study span.
In addition to the aforementioned findings regarding motivation control and self-defeating cognition, other results included the following:
**  Participants spent less time in job search as their unemployment spell continued, with hours per week declining from about 17 at the outset to about 14 at week 15 before ticking up very slightly. The decrease leads the authors to comment that "it may be constructive for job seekers, as well as organizations that work with job-seekers, to monitor job-search levels over time to keep persistence in the search going."
**  Participants' mental health showed a gradual improvement over the first 10 to 12 weeks followed by a slight downturn in later weeks as, in the study's words, "individuals begin to feel burned out and frustrated as they encounter repeated rejections." The professors did not find average mental health over the course of the study to be significantly related to reemployment speed.
**  Job-seekers who were high in what scholars call "approach orientation," -- that is, who had a zest for learning, growth, and personal mastery -- were more likely to have good motivation control than "avoidance oriented" individuals, whose personality was geared toward defensiveness and avoidance of failure. 
Overall, Prof. Wanberg sees the study as providing new evidence that, notwithstanding the difficulties of looking for a job, the outcome is to a considerable extent in the individuals's own hands, perhaps more than is commonly thought. As good a summary of the study as any, she says, can be found in the comments of one successful job-seeker who offered his thoughts on the challenge of persisting:
"Just keeping motivated. You know, that's a tough one when day in and day out, doors are slamming in your face because, you know, you're not the only person applying for a particular job or you're not the only person reaching out to somebody. And, I think, trying to keep a smile on your face and staying motivated that it will happen when it's meant to happen. That's the ticket. I think that's the toughest thing when you've been out of work for a long period of time. What other rocks have you not turned over? And if you turned over every rock that you can and reached out to God knows how many people, and you've sent newsletters to people saying this is what I've done, you know; and you do your own PR, and you kind of let the world know and you network and you do everything you could possibly do, and you're not getting anywhere and the train is not moving down the tracks, it is very tough to put one foot in front of the other and say, okay, tomorrow's going to be a better day. That sounds just so old-fashioned or cliched but it's true."
The new study, entitled "After the Pink Slip: Applying Dynamic Motivation Frameworks to the Job Search Experience" is in the April/May issue of the The Academy of Management Journal.  This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 103 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Media Coverage: A person's mental health gradually improves in the weeks after a layoff. (Wednesday, April 18, 2012).
Houston Chronicle. Even if the job search brings you down, stay up. (Thursday, April 12, 2012).
San Antonio Express-News. Secrets to getting a new job faster. (Thursday, April 12, 2012).
SmartPlanet. Mental health gradually bounces back after a layoff: study. (Wednesday, April 18, 2012).
The Globe & Mail. Job-hunt success hinges on positive attitude, study finds. (Saturday, April 14, 2012).
The Wall Street Journal. Mental health matters. (Wednesday, April 25, 2012).
United Press International. Job prospects looking up for college grads. (Sunday, April 22, 2012).

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